© Terry Reimink | adobe stock

Of all the management techniques and philosophies that have evolved over the 30-plus years I’ve been in the business of managing turf on golf courses, I’d put the now general and accepted realization of the importance of turf conditioning as perhaps the most important.

For years, we struggled as an industry fighting our problems (diseases, insects, weeds, drought stress and poor fertility specifically) with a curative, reactionary mentality. But in the last decade, and especially in the last handful of years, we have realized the importance of turf conditioning — or preconditioning as it has come to be known.

This newfound realization has led to many ways to precondition turf. At the forefront of this are the many site-specific programs superintendents now use as a roadmap for each season. Proven, tested programs that give us a leg up on the problems listed above.

Of course, the preventative steps we take to avoid the pitfalls of the past require a financial investment. So, what happens if the “powers that be” at a particular golf course tell the superintendent that the budget must be trimmed, corners must be cut and the plant protectant line item (often encompassing fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides, insecticides, plant growth regulators and wetting agents) is just too high and must be trimmed?

I went to some experts to learn a few things:

  • What would happen if we had to abandon or alter our own programs?
  • How could we arm ourselves with the tools and knowledge to take to those “powers that be” to explain how detrimental the cutbacks could be to turf health, playability and revenue generation?

Harrell’s director of agronomy, Dr. Jeff Atkinson, agrees that preconditioning plays a vital part in successful turfgrass management.

Atkinson

“Poorly conditioned turf is more susceptible to a number of abiotic and biotic pests,” he says. “A sound agronomic program which proactively addresses biotic and abiotic stress is an effective strategy to maintain turf quality throughout a growing season. Disease pressure, insect pressure, lack of wear tolerance, lack of drought tolerance, etc., will all become increasingly problematic and more difficult to recover from when general agronomics are not proactively addressed for a given site.”

Atkinson continues by describing what a sound program needs to encompass.

“When assembling an agronomic program for the year, it’s important to consider site conditions such as fertility, water, turf health, soil health, typical pest pressure for the property, among other factors,” he says. “When these factors are considered and an agronomic program is formulated, the total cost of the program will likely be less than if a reactive approach was implemented. While the tools we have available to produce and maintain high-quality turf are effective, they all rely on each other in a sense to be completely effective. It’s important for each pillar of an agronomic program to adequately address the site-specific issues, so that maintenance is the focus of the day rather than recovery.”

Goodrich

PBI-Gordon fungicide product manager Jim Goodrich has similar views on the importance of a sound preconditioning program and why cutting corners with that program can put a course at risk.

“From a purely agronomic standpoint, reducing inputs which help promote a healthy turf during periods of heavy traffic is a recipe for failure,” he says. “As abiotic stress increases, the ability of a stand of turf to reduce the impact of biotic stress decreases. Turf can’t recover from insect damage, disease damage or weed encroachment, and the playability decreases significantly. That situation normally leads to significant loss in revenue and the ability to recover that revenue is very challenging.”

Early Order Programs for planning and purchasing are one tactic superintendents can use to keep the cost of their program at a minimum. In fact, having a sound, consistent program helps when sitting down to budget and planning EOP needs.

Tredway

“We develop Early Order Programs and In-Season Programs ahead of anticipated cost increases and offer discounts to help superintendents make wise and budget-friendly purchase decisions,” Goodrich says. “The conversation with owners, general managers and board members to purchase inputs becomes much easier when the discount reduces the impact of rising costs, and the terms allow payments to be made when the stream for the club is peaking.”

A great thing about the programs plant protectant companies help superintendents with is that very often a program will include products not just from the company preparing the program for you, but from their competitors as well. Syngenta, for example, offers 50-plus site-specific programs intended to help superintendents and turfgrass managers.

“We’re fortunate to have a pretty robust portfolio,” says Syngenta Southeast technical services manager Dr. Lane Tredway. “In a lot of cases, we can offer a pretty comprehensive program for disease, insect and weed control. In these programs, we include competitor products if and when necessary. We make the best agronomic recommendations based on the research that we do with the universities and product consultants as well.”

I also spoke with Tredway about why it’s important these programs rely heavily on preconditioning, using some common fungal diseases as an example. “For example, many of our fungal diseases are root infectant, things like summer patch and spring dead spot,” Tredway says. “Oftentimes, once the actual disease development occurs, it is sometime weeks or even months before you see any hint of above-ground symptoms. These are cases where the diseases absolutely have to be managed preventatively. When the turf still looks healthy … once the symptoms appear, the damage is already done.”

Tredway adds that fungicide resistance is a problem often associated with curative treatment. “Fungicide resistance is a major issue these days, and curative applications are really the worst thing you can do from a fungicide resistance management standpoint,” Tredway says. “If you allow the fungal population to expand, you’re increasing the chance that there could be a resistant strain present in that population. From a resistance management standpoint, the preventative applications keep the fungal population suppressed.”

Atkinson emphasizes that we’re also controlling, and to an extent, conditioning with fertility in a way as well. He uses anthracnose as an example to make this point. “Our research has demonstrated over and over that a proper, site-specific fertility program can drastically reduce anthracnose pressure on a Poa putting green,” he says. “Without a sound fertility program, anthracnose pressure picks up dramatically.”

This brings us back to considering all agronomic practices, including cultural management tools, together as part of the preconditioning program. That mix includes cultural practices such as mowing heights, rolling frequency, aerification, verticutting and topdressing; fertility; and pest management protectants.

“All aspects of an agronomic program should be aligned to prepare turf for the inevitable biotic and abiotic stressors of the growing season,” Atkinson says. “It’s common for an agronomic program to require fewer pesticide inputs when these factors are all aligned for preventative management, which ultimately will result in less pesticide-related spending in the long run.”

Each expert agrees that curative measures are less effective and will ultimately require more money spent to try and control issues. This should be enough compelling evidence to help superintendents defend their plant protectant programs to the “powers that be.”

Tredway sums up our argument best with the old saying, “An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.”

Ron Furlong is the superintendent at Avalon Golf Links in Burlington, Washington, and a frequent Golf Course Industry contributor.